Flag-burning, stem cells, "patients' rights"… yawn. When did a political idea last make you sit up and take notice?
Just such a startlingly bold idea is HR 2459, a bill to establish a Department of Peace. To say it is a bold idea is not to say that it's new. George Washington wrote in 1783 that he expected Congress would set up some sort of "proper Peace Establishment," while bills to do so have been popping up in Congress since 1935.
What's different about HR 2459, the brainchild of Ohio Democrat Dennis Kucinich, is the focus not just on preventing conflicts abroad but also on keeping the peace at home–in communities, on neighborhood streets, even within families.
Kucinich said he began to think of a Department of Peace in the spring of 1999, as he watched the NATO-led bombing of Yugoslavia unfold in tandem with violence at home, such as the Columbine High School shooting that left fifteen dead.
"Reflecting on this, the spirit of our times, I started to ask some basic questions–questions I'm sure millions of Americans ask every day," Kucinich said. "Is violence inevitable? Is war inevitable? Is there any way we can pursue a path of transformation?
"And so in discussions with hundreds, even thousands, of people over the past few years, I decided to make this effort–which seeks to make nonviolence an organizing principle in our society."
Kucinich is seeking a Cabinet-level structure led by a Secretary of Peace, funded with the equivalent of 1 percent of the budget of the Defense Department.
That 1 percent is another neat trick of Kucinich's bill, because it confronts us with the sobering amounts we spend on the military. About 50 percent of discretionary budget spending goes to the Pentagon, or $343 billion in the Bush Administration's 2002 budget request. One percent of that would make for $3.4 billion. For comparison, the entire Russian military budget is only about $8.35 billion.
That kind of funding would easily allow for establishing a four-year Peace Academy modeled after our military academies. Peace Academy graduates would be required to work five years in a public service promoting nonviolence. No word yet on whether the academy would have a football team, but the potential rivalries dwarf those of Army-Navy.
Here at home, the Peace Secretary envisioned by HR 2459 would develop policies to address domestic violence, from spousal abuse to child abuse; to deal with gun violence and the "overwhelming presence of handguns"; and to tackle school violence, racial or ethnic violence, and police-community disputes. The department would also work with universities and the Department of Education to encourage peace studies programs and curriculums.
In foreign affairs, Secretaries of Defense and State would be required to consult with the Peace Secretary before entering into any military conflict and during all treaty negotiations. The Peace Secretary would sit on the National Security Council. He or she would administer a force of civilian peacekeepers for operations abroad and would work to mediate international conflicts. The department would take over, among other things, the Peace Corps and the international arms control work of the State Department.
The Peace Secretary would formally study the impact of war, especially on the physical and mental health of children. (As Kucinich notes, the wars of the twentieth century claimed 100 million lives, most of them of noncombatants.) He or she would "provide ethical-based and value-based analyses to the Department of Defense," and make annual reports to the President on how America's international arms sales affect world peace and our own national security.
And there's more. The Peace Secretary would address violence against animals. He or she would make policy recommendations on civil rights and labor law. The department's Office of Human Rights and Economic Rights would document human rights abuses here and abroad, and would monitor the loans and conditions offered by organizations like the IMF and World Bank. The department's Office of Technology for Peace would encourage conservation and sustainable resource use to avoid future scarcity-driven conflicts. There would even be an annual report to Congress on the effect upon society of violence in the media.
HR 2459 has thirty-eight co-sponsors, and when Congress returns in the fall, Kucinich says he will work to get a House committee to hold hearings. That's not likely in Tom DeLay's House. But Kucinich has already been at this for a couple of years, and he says he and his co-sponsors are in for the long haul.